Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


Gene Yang on The Shadow Warrior, Diverse Books and Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Rift

May 7, 2014



Gene Luen Yang was nominated for an Eisner for his recent work on Boxers and Saints at First Second Books. The two companion graphic novels focus on the story of the Boxer Rebellion: One from a Chinese fighter who has joined the Boxers in order to preserve his way of life and the other from the vantage of a Chinese Christian affected by the conflict. Gene’s previous work has been profiled at Racebending.com externsively including his Avatar the Last Airbender comics for Dark Horse. Gene has also kind enough to sit on some of our panels which you can watch here. Gene is currently working on the third season of his Avatar the Last Airbender comics, The Rift.

We talked to Gene via email to discuss his recent Eisner nomination. His work on The Shadow Hero, a retelling of the origins of the first Asian American Super Hero, The Green Turtle. We discuss the importance of diverse heroes and diverse books.  Finally we discuss his free comic book day title as well as what we can expect to learn about Toph in The Rift.


Boxers-Final optimized 100-136RACEBENDING: First Congrats on the Eisner nomination! You pointed out that there were other entrants from First Second in your category, why do you think First Second is able to cater so well to readers in this category?

GENE YANG: Thank you so much!  I’m such a huge fan of Will Eisner.  It’s an honor to be nominated for an award named after him.

My publisher First Second Books got three out of the six nominations in the Best Publication for Teens category.  First Second does books for every age.  They publish books for the younger set like Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon’s Odd Duck, and adult books like Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s Feynman.  I do think you’re right, though.  First Second seems to do especially well in Young Adult.

I’m not sure why this is.  From the very beginning, First Second editorial director Mark Siegel wanted the imprint to be in between worlds.  First Second publishes books from all three major comics cultures: American, Japanese, European.  First Second also has solid footing in all three major markets for comics: bookstores, comics shops, and libraries.  Being “in between” has been a part of the imprint’s DNA from the very beginning.  Maybe First Second does well with teens because Young Adult is an “in between” category.

RACEBENDING:Are there any other golden age or silver age characters that you would like to write or reinvent as in the case of the Green Turtle?

GENE YANG: There are so many crazy Golden Age heroes out there!  Too many to choose from – just google “public domain superheroes” and you’ll see what I mean.  It’d be fun to revive a bunch of heroes around a theme, like the color green:  Green Turtle, Green Lama, Green Mask, Green Sorceress.ShadowHero-Cov-300rbg

RACEBENDING:Why do you think Superheroes are an important embodiment of America and how important is it that those heroes then also embody the actual diversity of America?

GENE YANG: America is embedded within very foundations of the superhero genre.  Superheroes came around just as America was becoming a superpower.  They were created by poor, teenage children of immigrants. You can find the fingerprints of that immigrant past in almost every origin story. Superman, the prototypical superhero, is also the prototypical immigrant.  He was sent to America by his foreign parents so he could have a brighter future.

Superheroes embody American idealism, American hope, American bombast. There’s just something joyfully goofy – or goofily joyful? – about running around rooftops in brightly colored tights fighting crime. Deep down inside, we superhero fans know this. We understand the symbolic value of Spider-man, Batman, and Wonder Woman. That’s why there’s such a push for diversity within the genre now. We want to see in our comics that anybody can be a superhero, that anybody can be an American.

 America is embedded within very foundations of the superhero genre.  Superheroes came around just as America was becoming a superpower.  They were created by poor, teenage children of immigrants. You can find the fingerprints of that immigrant past in almost every origin story.

RACEBENDING: The  recent controversy surrounding Bookcon was summarized in a tweet last week as “having more cats than writers of color” in its featured guests list. While this has been remedied in the past week with the addition of Alaya Dawn Johnson, Marie Lu and others the ratio of cats to people of color is still not all that favorable. Authors have responded to this by answering the question, why do we need diverse books and I would like to ask you that same question now? Also how important is it that these cons and expo’s are inclusive? Have you ever felt unwelcome or tokenized at conventions?

GENE YANG: We need diverse books because our world is diverse. I believe in that notion of literature serving as both a mirror reflecting our own experience and a window into The Other’s experience.

I’m a comic book guy. Comic books have traditionally been a medium for the marginalized. Many of the early greats were the children of poor, Jewish immigrants. They came from families so marginalized they had to flee their home countries.  Then later, the underground comix movement of the 60s served as an outlet for the voices and ideas of the outcast. “Outsiderness” is an embedded comics’ DNA.

ShadowHero-Interior-FULL_100-31Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt at home at comic book conventions. Everyone I met seemed a little offbeat. Everyone seemed like somebody I would’ve hung out with in the nerd corner of my high school cafeteria.

That’s my experience as a comic book *guy*, however. I know has been really different for comic book *girls*. The relative gender balance we see at comic book conventions these days is a fairly recent phenomenon.

We need diverse books because our world is diverse. I believe in that notion of literature serving as both a mirror reflecting our own experience and a window into The Other’s experience.

RACEBENDING: Free Comic Book day saw the release of an (amazing!) Avatar the Last Airbender book and you have The Rift upcoming. Suki took a leading role in the free comic book day issue and the focus of the story was on male gatekeepers in the culture that stigmatize girls as only being fake when expressing the same interest or expertise as men. Why do you think that kind of a culture persists in comics and how do we overcome it as fans?

GENE YANG: I don’t know why that fake nerd girl thing exists. Clearly, there are nerdy girls. Just go to your local high school, your local library, your local mall. Look around.

As a lifelong geek, it’s weird to see the obsessions I used to hide celebrated by mainstream culture. In high school, me and my comic book buddies had to sneak to the comics shop on new comics day like we were going to a crack house. Now, everybody’s talking about Batman and the X-Men and the Avengers.

I have to admit, I do get that feeling sometimes, that same feeling you get when everybody discovers your favorite indie band. It’s not logical. I should be happy everyone loves geek culture now because it means there will be more of it. And most of the time I am. But every now and then…

Maybe that fake nerd girl thing is a weird, sexist expression of that sentiment? Or maybe humans are just jerks.

RACEBENDING:  In a related question will we be seeing more of Suki in the Rift and are there any other familiar faces that we have not seen represented from the show in the comics that will also be in The Rift?

tumblr_inline_mrt029annU1qz4rgpGene Yang: No Suki in The Rift, unfortunately. I love the Kyoshi Warriors so I hope to write them again soon! As for other characters… You’ll just have to read the books.

RACEBENDING: As The Rift has Toph as a more central character and you have already answered some of fans’ biggest questions in past entries what questions about Toph will be answered or addressed in the new series? Does she finally get a positive life altering event because of a vacation with Zuko? Everyone else in the gang got one!

GENE YANG: Haha. Zuko doesn’t show up in the Rift either. But Toph gets a lot of panel time. I love her. We do get into some of those lingering questions about her family.

RACEBENDING: Did you feel your nomination for National Book award was an acknowledgment of comics as a medium as well as your work. Should more comics be considered for the honor?

GENE YANG: Having my books nominated for the National Book Award was one of the biggest thrills of mylife.  I feel incredibly, incredibly lucky.  Creators like Art Spiegelman, the Hernandez Brothers,Lynda Barry, Osamu Tezuka, and Neil Gaiman have been pushing the literary boundaries of comics for decades. They created a “literary comics” category in the minds of the general public, and I am one of the many beneficiaries of their work.

cm_yang11038lhI absolutely think more comics should be considered for the National Book Award, but this is largely in the hands of the publishers.  A few years after my first nomination, I had the honor of serving as a judge for the National Book Awards.  Judges can request certain books, but the vast majority of books being considered are submitted by the publishers.  There’s a submission fee,but if a comics publisher puts out a graphic novel they feel is particularly worthy, they ought to. In fact, I would suggest that even fans can get involved.  If you read a graphic novel that completely blows your mind, write to the publisher.  Ask them to submit it to the National Book Awards.  And if you’re feeling generous, offer to donate a part of the submission fee.


Racebending.com would like to thank Gene Yang for this interview! Visit geneyang.com to learn more about his books.

Categories: blog, Current Diversity Highlights, Interviews, The Last Airbender
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About the Author

Gabriel Canada is a contributing writer to Racebending.com. Gabe Canada is from Indianapolis, Indiana where he is currently studying Journalism at Indiana University. He joined Racebending as a fan of the original Airbender series. Outside of school he runs a local anime meetup group and is the cofounder of a production company, Kind of Epic Films.

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